Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Ruth Ware is capable like very few others of weaving together complex, somber and wholesome murder mysteries reminiscent of the Agatha Christie days. After writing numerous bestsellers which are now being made into movies, she continues her body of work with The Death of Mrs. Westaway , following a professional tarot reader, Harriet Westway. One day she inherits a fortune from a recently deceased woman, seemingly by total error. Upon arriving at the funeral however, it dawns on her something might be terribly wrong and rotten in this situation.
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Ruth Ware and the Surprise Legacy
No matter how hard we work to make money, it seems like the kind of thing we’re always going to need and reach for, from now until the end of time. Every single person on Earth loves to fancy themselves with a greater fortune, even the ones who have more than they would ever know what to do with. The idea of some surprise inheritance coming up out of nowhere is one I believe we all secretly hope for… after all, is there a more ethical way to come into a large sum of money without having to work for it one bit?
While in real life it doesn’t seem to happen all that often, in Ruth Ware‘s The Death of Mrs. Westway, a professional tarot reader named Harriet Westaway, out of all people, is bequeathed with just such a fortune. However, few things in life can ever come for free, a lesson Harriet is about to learn the hard way. As the story opens up we make the acquaintance of the afore-mentioned Harriet, mostly known as Hal to her friends and family. We learn about her bond with her mother, and how the two have integrated tarot into their personal and professional lives, without ever really being true believers in it.
One day, the letter of a massive inheritance shows up at Hal’s doorstep, and though she knows it to be some sort of error, she believes she might be able to use her cold reading skills to put her hands on the fortune. Her perfect plan begins to crack at the seams though when she attends the funeral and feels something to be terribly wrong with the situation. It seems the family members all have their fair share of secrets to hide and a motivation to see old Mrs. Westway depart into the next world. Armed with nothing but her wits, Hal dives into this family’s life and tries to untangle a complicated web of murder and deceit.
Resurgence of a Classic Style
Ever since the good old Agatha Christie days, it felt to me as if murder mystery novels have slowly taken into new directions. Generally they are darker, take place on larger scales and involve some extremely damaged and possibly alcoholic detectives who can only stop for long enough between cases to get another drink in them. The Death of Mrs. Westaway takes us back to that older and somewhat simpler time when murder mysteries would take place in a small location and revolve around a specific cast of determined suspects. In other words, it aims to be a classic whodunit mystery, and I believe it managed to pull it off with exceptional success.
In this type of story, I believe two of the truly important elements to make it function are a compelling list of suspects and an atmospheric setting. Regarding the former, we get treated to an internally-dysfunctional family where every member has a life and character of their own.
When they gave themselves over to superstition, they were giving up on shaping their own destiny.― Ruth Ware, The Death of Mrs. Westaway
In The Death of Mrs. Westway we get acquainted with all of them well enough for the purposes of the story, without ever revealing too much and spoiling the mystery. We keep on wondering what each person’s motivation might be, what their agenda holds in store for us. While I do think some veteran readers of the genre will be able to figure out who the culprit is, overall I would qualify the mystery as being strong and overall unpredictable. It helps quite a bit since it mostly takes place in the family’s dreary and decaying mansion in the middle of winter, a classic Victorian setting with plenty of nooks and crannies, labyrinthine corridors, and a murderer hiding in the shadows.
Red Herring for Dinner with Hal
As Hal carried the story forward (a bit more about her later), I got treated to an increasing number of red herrings, and while I do believe they have their place in whodunit mysteries, in this case it felt like the other went ever-so-slightly overboard with them. The problem is when they come in great enough numbers, their misleading effect is lost since we begin assuming everything is a false lead. As such, it led to a few moments which fell flat with their twists and were obviously just there to mislead the reader.
With that being said there are a few good twists in this relatively slow story, so it’s definitely not all eye-rolling attempts at deception… some of them are simply less successful than others. Moving on to Hal herself, the driver of the novel so-to-speak, I found her to be a bit of a disappointment as well. While I’m not exactly expecting another Herclue Poirot or a reclusive Sherlock, I don’t think it would be too much to give the investigative protagonist of a whodunit mystery a greater imagination, sense of logic and awareness.
I understand the author tried to make her as a normal person in a fish-out-of-water situation, which partially does make her relatable, but I feel it ultimately doesn’t work in the novel’s favour because the atmosphere never seemed to aim for ultra-realism. I’m certain I speak for many when I say we would be more than willing to suspend our disbelief to see a mentally strong and capable character driving the mystery forward.
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As it stands, she repeats herself quite a bit and it often feels as if she just stumbles through the events. With that being said, I don’t think it ruins the book as it still remains quite enjoyable for the mystery itself as well as the cast of suspects at our disposal. It would have simply been more enjoyable to see our protagonist have a greater aptitude for this sort of work.
The Final Verdict
Despite having a few flaws, The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware remains an entertaining and gratifying murder mystery written in a classic whodunit format. While the main character didn’t turn out to be the best fit, the setting, suspects, and plot itself do more than enough to elevate this book to a place where I would recommend it for anyone who enjoys good old-fashioned murder mysteries.
You can’t influence fate, or change what’s out of your control. But you can choose what you yourself do with the cards you’re dealt.― Ruth Ware, The Death of Mrs. Westaway
Ruth Ware is a British author specializing in psychological crime thrillers. Before turning to writing she studied at Manchester University, worked as a waitress, bookseller, a publicist, and a teacher of the English language in Paris.
Her books In a Dark, Dark Wood and The Woman in Cabin 10 were on The New York Times and U.K’s Sunday Times top ten bestseller lists, in addition to which they are being produced into major motion pictures, alongside with another novel of of hers, The Lying Game.